The Silent Crisis

So another election comes and goes and once more the political commentator class struggles to tell us what the results ‘prove’ about the nation. And that’s the problem – local elections aren’t meant to ‘prove’ anything about the nation. Local elections are supposed to be a way of making decisions about your local community. The fact that they’re not seen that way in contemporary Scotland was the starting-point for the latest policy report produced by the Jimmy Reid Foundation.

Called The Silent Crisis: Failure and Revival in Local Democracy in Scotland, it became clear from a very early stage that there was no simple ‘reform’ of existing local authorities which would resolve the problems. There are many things we should be doing to strengthen existing local authorities – above all by ending the drive of centralisation, granting them proper accountable fundraising powers and assuming a power of General Competence across the board. But while doing that would make the existing authorities stronger, stronger local authorities are not the solution if they themselves do not reflect the democratic wishes of the communities they serve.

The report proposes a ‘thought experiment’ – think of any aspiration your community might have, imagine every single member of your community agrees, and now try to think of a way that you could all use your votes to achieve the aspiration. You can’t, can you? Because no matter how big or small you consider your ‘community’ to be it almost certainly elects no more than one or two councillors to the largest local authorities in Europe. Local democracy in Scotland is an elaborate form of pleading.

Below you can find a summary of the findings of the report . The report authors are confident that it is possible to redesign local democracy in Scotland in a way that means its actually working but without excessive disruption and cost. And the prize if we succeed is enormous – a Scotland that begins to re-engage with politics and decision-making rather than being left on the sidelines to complain. The ‘trickle up’ effect of allowing people in their own communities to make decisions for themselves would be transformative.

We’re delighted at the response to the report. We’ve had strong cross-party support, many very enthusiastic messages from local campaigners across the country and a commitment from the First Minister to hold cross-party talks on whether a consensus can be achieved on the recommendations in the report.

The ‘trickle up’ effect of allowing people in their own communities to make decisions for themselves would be transformative

But while the response from within and outside politics has been great and we’ve also had lots of support from many writers and commentators, still one group seems intent on failing to learn from Scotland’s mistakes. There remains a sort of pressure group in Scotland which continues to believe that the best way for the country to be run is for the people to be allowed to voice a sort of general opinion about the state of the country. But (this is the crucial bit) the task of ‘interpreting’ what opinion has been expressed and then acting on it is certainly not for the people but for a governing class. This class sees every vote as a commentary on economic policy, every outcome as evidence that politicians must pursue an ever-more neoliberal response and every four-year period in between elections as the sole preserve of professional administrators. Communication with the public is inefficient unless it is one-directional. No public service isn’t better run if the views of the public are ignored in favour of the views of professionals. The voice of people matters only if it is expressed in terms of individual consumption. No unit of administration is ever big enough or distant enough from those it serves, no two bodies not ripe for merging. The bigger it is, the easier it is to outsource and control. This remains the dominant opinion which surrounds government – the business lobby, much of the ‘think tank’ set, the professional writers, much of the civil service and many of the senior professionals who run public sector Scotland. This attitude is sometimes seen as a problem of the public sector, but this is also wrong. It is a truly public-private partnership between a governing class in which big accountancy firms have as strong a voice as public sector managers.

The Silent Crisis is a report about local communities, but it is also a report about the very nature of Scotland. It is time to reclaim Scotland from the unelected (and often unelectable) governing class. For convenience, we’ll just call it democracy.

Report Summary

Scotland, with its many diverse communities, is a nation with a rich and diverse local tradition. However, this thriving ‘localism’ is not matched by a thriving local democracy; in fact, quite the opposite is the case.

It is time we fully recognised the state of democracy in Scotland. Below the national level, Scotland is the least democratic country in the European Union; some have argued that it is the least democratic country in the developed world. We elect fewer people to make our decisions than anyone else and fewer people turn out to vote in those elections than anyone else. We have much bigger local councils that anyone else, representing many more people and vastly more land area than anyone else, even  other countries with low density of population. In France one in 125 people is an elected community politicians. In Austria, one in 200. In Germany one in 400. In Finland one in 500. In Scotland it is one in 4,270 (even England manages one in 2,860). In Norway one in 81 people stand for election in their community. In Finland one in 140. In Sweden one in 145. In Scotland one in 2,071. In Norway 5.5 people contest each seat. In Sweden 4.4 people. In Finland 3.7 people. In Scotland 2.1. In every single indicator we were able to identify to show the health of local democracy, Scotland performs worst of any comparator we could find.

In most of Europe community politics is ‘normal’ – people you know, your friends and family or neighbours will routinely contest elections to represent your community. In Scotland we have created a system where community politics is ‘strange and distant’ – you probably don’t know many (if any) people who are involved in local politics. You probably don’t vote. You certainly end up with a council which is by far the most distant and unrepresentative of your community of any comparable country. And you wonder why confidence in local democracy is low?

This is an existential crisis for local democracy. If we do nothing to address this very clear problem we will end up with a nation in which politics is the preserve of a tiny cadre of professional politicians who are separate from the rest of society. We will continue to live in a country where professional managers make decisions for your community with little reference to your community, and they will continue to do it in ‘job lots’ – not building a school for you but building half a dozen schools for a standardised notion of what a community is. And these blanket policies applied across diverse communities will simply dilute diversity and create homogenous ‘clone towns’. Disillusionment and alienation will continue to rise and the gap between politics and the people will  continue to widen.

In Scotland we have been kidding ourselves on that a few successful audits of local authority bureaucracy have shown there is no problem. But worse than that, the letters pages of many newspapers suggest that we aren’t even widely aware of our status as the least locally democratic nation in the developed world. This cannot be allowed to continue indefinitely.

So there are three core conclusions from this report:

  • Local democracy is important in principle and in practice
  • There is a clear democratic deficit in Scotland at the local level
  • To resolve this the Scottish Government should set up a Commission to devise a layer of democracy which can be established below the level of the existing local authorities

In considering how that might be done the report recommends:

  • There is no justification for any major restructuring of the administrative bureaucracy of existing local authorities; what is needed is not an extra layer of bureaucracy but an extra layer of democratic decision-making to guide and instruct that bureaucracy
  • There are some core principles that must be adhered to in devising that layer of democracy, central among which is that democracy must be universal and not ‘voluntarist’
  • The proposals should be bold in following the principle of subsidiarity – we should trust communities to make as many as possible of the decisions which impact on them themselves, which means making sure they have the maximum possible power
  • However, it is important to also make clear that national government does have an important role in establishing national policy frameworks and in ensuring national minimum standards.

It also seeks to set the debate in context:

  • Cost should not be seen as a deterrent: as there is no proposal for restructuring the administrative function of existing local authorities the cost of introducing democratic councils should be no more than a few tens of millions of pounds at most
  • Fear of ‘competence’ must not inhibit the debate: the tendency of some professional politicians and administrators to assume communities are not capable of managing their own affairs is clearly contradicted by the experience from across Europe
  • This is not a low-priority issue: the current structure which sees politics and decision-making take place distant from and with little reference to the people the decisions affect lies at the very heart of many of the major problems of disillusionment with democracy that are regularly identified in Scotland and the UK as a whole

We believe that this is a matter that should command strong cross-party support and urge politicians of all parties to support these calls for reform.